Barth understood that the work of the theologian is word work, or, as John Howard Yoder would have it, that the task of theology is “working with words in the light of faith.” The difficulty of the task is manifest by the misleading grammar of Yoder’s observation, that is, one can draw from his description the conclusion that words do not constitute “the light of faith.” In fact, faith is nothing more than the words we use to speak of God. And yet the God to whom and about whom we speak defies the words we use. Such defiance seems odd, because the God about whom we speak is, we believe, found decisively in Jesus of Nazareth, the very Word of God. Still, it seems that the nearer God draws to us, the more we discover that we know not what we say when we say “God.” I suspect that this is why one of the most difficult challenges of prayer is learning how to address God.
For Christians, learning to address God is complicated because we do not begin by addressing “God” but rather “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit.” “God” is the name we use to indicate the love that constitutes the relation of Jesus and his Father through the work of the Holy Spirit. Thus we know what it means to say “God” only because Jesus taught us to pray to the Father. Disputes between those who believe in God and those who do not often turn on the assumption by both parties that they know what they mean when they say “God.” This seems unlikely, since Christians believe that we learn to use the word “God” only through worship and prayer to the One we address as Father, Son/ and Spirit. Such a God is identified by a story that takes time, often a lifetime, to learn.
Theology is the ongoing and never ending attempt to learn this story and to locate the contexts that make speech about God work. How theology can at once be about God and about the complexities of human life is never easily rendered. Some theologians in modernity have tried to split the difference between speech about God and the complexities of human life, with the result that their theology is more about “us” than about God.